Climate Charades

from asr 84

As this issue goes to press, diplomats are meeting in Glasgow to make their contribution to the climate crisis: a barrage of hot air. Even as they “pledge” to reduce greenhouse gases at some point in the distant future new coal-burning plants are being built, oil wells drilled, forests cleared, more of the earth buried in concrete.

Climate change is inflicting catastrophe on a daily basis. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the world’s governments have stalled on meaningful action for so many decades that it is no longer possible to avoid intense global warming. This summer, blistering heat waves killed hundreds of people in the United States and Canada, floods devastated Germany and China, and wildfires raged out of control in Siberia, Turkey and Greece. 

Even if the politicians honor their current promises – and does anyone believe they will? – they are not nearly enough to hold global warming to the 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) the IPCC calculates is the upper limit to avoid catastrophe. 

Honoring their promises would mean severe drought, the extinction of several animal and plant species, mass die-offs of coral reefs, substantial sea level rise (and attendant flooding), famine and pestilence, and life-threatening heat waves. (However, the effects to date have been far worse than the scientific consensus predicted – suggesting that much more ambitious targets are needed.)

Limiting the devastation to that level would require a rapid end to fossil fuel burning, alongside aggressive remediation efforts. If the targets are missed the devastation will be much worse. Every additional degree of warming brings greater perils: floods and heat waves, hurricanes fires, collapsing ice shelfs and accelerating sea-level rise that could drown many island nations.

Even the politicians recognize their criminality, as they refuse to act. British prime minister Boris Johnson acknowledged that future generations “will judge us with bitterness and with a resentment that eclipses any of the climate activists of today.” And so oil industry lobbyists thronged the halls of November’s climate summit, even as activists were kept out by rows of chain link fences.

There is money to be made destroying the planet, and governments, as usual, are working for the exploiters. And so politicians speak of their commitment to combatting global warming at the same time they call for pumping more oil and building more roads. “Billions of dollars are being invested in projects that won’t be viable if governments implement the Paris Agreement,” Bloomberg Businessweek observes. Even though “new oil and gas projects [need to] cease immediately,” oil companies continue exploring for oil, even in high-cost under areas such as the Barents Sea. The editors propose a form of capital punishment, urging governments to refuse to bail out corporations that gamble on business as usual in the face of the climate crisis. “Faster progress is essential,” Businessweek concludes. Speechifying isn’t enough, “They need to act.” 

Too many of the proposed actions head in entirely the wrong direction. Take electric cars, for example. Replacing the world’s 1.5 billion or so cars with electric vehicles is not only impractical, it would entail enormous ecological costs. Huge mining projects would be needed for the toxic heavy metals used in batteries; scores of new power plants would be needed to generate the electricity; and of course hundreds of millions of new cars would have to be manufactured. This is folly – what’s needed is an entirely new public transportation system, designed to meet human needs. Such a system would need far fewer vehicles, use less energy, and enable us to replace much of the asphalt currently dedicated to parking (three spaces per car) with trees and other plants. It would improve our quality of life while protecting the planet.

It would no doubt be in the bosses’ long-term interest to moderate the damage from the climate catastrophe their reckless despoliation of the planet has wrought, which is why they continue these conferences in the hopes that other capitalists will agree to shoulder the costs of allowing the profit system to continue. But we cannot afford their half-measures aimed at preserving a status quo that condemns so many of our fellow workers to lives of misery.

This is no time for despair. Even partial victories can mitigate the damage, but these will happen only if people organize. Construction workers could emulate Sidney’s BWF and refuse to build planet-destroying projects, demanding instead work to build the infrastructure for a sustainable future. Transport workers could draw inspiration from dockers’ recent refusal to load munitions to shut down the global trade in fossil fuels. Auto workers could mount a new wave of sit-down strikes to plan and implement conversion of their factories to support sustainable alternatives. Agricultural workers could demand implementation of sustainable farming practices – benefitting the planet at the same time that they improve their own health. Unions and communities could build solidarity funds to sustain workers in these fights, and to support impoverished workers and communities the whole world over as they struggle to build a new world in the shell of the old.

“In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold, greater than the might of armies magnified a thousand-fold.” We have to organize to exercise that power, and work to implement our vision of a new world before the insatiable lust for profits reduces us to the “ashes of the old.” [JB]

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